Letter to My Younger Self

Dear eight-year-old Yonder,

I need you to stop crying. I know you’re scared. I know you don’t know what’s going on. I know you’ve never been on a plane before — you’ve never even seen a plane before. And you’re afraid of heights. Which is ironic because right now, you’re scared that the small propeller plane carrying you, your sister and your parents isn’t flying high enough. It’s flying way too close to the ground.

But it has to. Because if it doesn’t, somebody might spot you and you might get caught.

Look around you. The inside of the plane is cramped, and it’s just the four of you and the pilot. No bags. No luggage. No lights. It’s dark and loud. But if you tune out the sound of the propellers humming outside, you can hear Mom and Dad crying, just like you are. And your little sister, Yainee, is quietly sitting next to you — wearing her little white dress like the princess she is — just along for the ride.

You think you don’t know what’s going on? She has no idea.

But both of you need to just trust Mom and Dad. They know what they’re doing, and they have a plan.

You’ve probably noticed that the plane has already started flying a little higher. That’s because you’ve left the coast of Havana. It’s safe now. Soon, the sun will come up and shine in through the left side of the plane, and the farther you get from the Cuban coast, the closer you’ll be to your new life in America.

Yes, Yonder. You’re going to America.

I know. Mom and Dad haven’t even told you yet. When Dad came into your room at 3:30 a.m. and woke you up, all he said was, “We’re going on a trip.” He didn’t tell you to pack anything. He just told you to grab your stickball bat and get in the car.

Your parents didn’t tell anybody they were leaving until the very last second. They couldn’t. It had to be a secret because if the government or the police had found out that your parents were planning to leave, they would have have thrown them in jail.

That’s why there were so few family and friends back at the airstrip to say goodbye.

Did you notice how they were taking photos in the dark with those disposable Kodak cameras — the little yellow ones? Well, in a few years, you’ll see those photos. You’ll notice that in them, nobody is smiling. Their eyes will be dotted bright red from the flash, but you’ll still be able to see the tears in them. Everybody will just look.…

Well, they’ll look the way you feel right now.

Scared to death.

But I want you to take the fear you’re feeling, and multiply that by 100.

That’s how scared Mom and Dad are.

They’re about to start over in a new country where they don’t speak the language — none of you do — and they’ll have to build a new life for themselves, and for you and Yainee. And they’ll have to do it from scratch.

I know you’re probably waiting for me — for somebody — to tell you that everything is going to be O.K. That life in the U.S. is going to be amazing. That all of your family’s dreams are going to come true and you’ll all live happily ever after.

But it’s not that simple.

Your parents are basically leaving poverty for poverty. When you land at the airport in Miami, your family will be met by U.S. immigration. The officers will ask your parents some questions, and after a lot of paperwork they’ll basically say, “Welcome to America.” And you’ll be free to go.

But free to go where?

And free to do what?

Remember, you have no luggage. No possessions. You have only the clothes on your backs … and your stickball bat. Your parents have almost no money. No jobs. No place to live.

But that’s O.K., because Dad’s a hustler.

You know what I mean. You basically helped him run his illegal business out of your family’s apartment in Cuba. You delivered packages for him all over town. He figured a kid was less likely to get hassled by police in the street, so he’d give you the stuff from the stash under his bed and you’d put it in your bag and make the deliveries. Lemons to Mrs. Maria’s house. Onions to the family at the end of the street. Potatoes. Beans. Limes. Dad always had something stashed and ready to sell — things people needed because the government-issued rations booklet (la libreta) that most families relied on to survive was only good for a bare minimum of groceries each month. And after families had used up their booklets, most couldn’t afford much more food from the local bodega.

But Dad had connections.

He was a baseball player in Cuba, so he was a little bit of a celebrity. Everybody knew who he was, including all the farmers. So he bought and traded for goods under the table — goods that most people either couldn’t afford or couldn’t get because they were in such high demand. He basically ran a black market for discount fruits and vegetables from his bedroom. He could have gone to jail for it. But because he was helping people, nobody reported him. Plus, like I said, he pretty much knew everybody.

How do you think he got the plane you’re on right now?

He knew a guy.

But in America, he doesn’t know anybody.

Actually, there’s one guy in Miami that he does know — a guy he used to play baseball with who fled Cuba on a raft a few years ago and now works at a warehouse in Miami. And that one connection is going to be all Dad will need to get started.

You and your family will stay with his friend in Miami for a few nights. Within a week, he’ll have gotten Dad a job at the warehouse and Dad will have found a tiny one-bedroom house to rent.

Many meals will be microwaved. Hot dogs. Popcorn. Even eggs.

The first time rent is due, Dad won’t have it. He’ll have to pay late. But he’ll figure things out soon enough. He’ll get a second job as an instructor at a local baseball academy. He’ll get a third job umpiring games on the side. He’ll get a fourth job cleaning office buildings and warehouses on the weekends. And Mom will find two or three jobs herself.

Your jobs will be simple: Get good grades in school, play baseball, and take care of yourself and Yainee.

Mom and Dad will have to work late almost every night. You’ll see them in the morning when you leave for school at around six, but you and Yainee will usually be asleep on the rickety sofa bed in the living room by the time they get home, so you won’t see them until the next morning.

Most nights, you’ll be in charge of cooking dinner for you and your sister. Many meals will be microwaved. Hot dogs. Popcorn. Even eggs.

When things are going well and Mom and Dad have some extra money and a rare night off together, they’ll order a small pizza for the four of you to share. Or sometimes on Wednesdays, when a fast-food restaurant called McDonald’s has 39-cent cheeseburgers, Dad will buy 20 and put them in the refrigerator, and you and Yainee will each go to school every day for a week and a half with a cold cheeseburger for lunch.

By the time you get to the last few burgers in the fridge, the bottom buns will be soaked in pickle juice and everything will just taste … old. It’s gonna be nasty. To this day, I still hate pickles because of those cold cheeseburgers.

But you’ll get by.

You’ll be lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where everybody is Cuban, like you. They’ll look like you. They’ll speak Spanish like you.

And they’ll be very poor.

Like you.

It will be when you go to school that you’re going to feel lonely. Like you don’t fit in. They won’t speak Spanish there. And even though they’ll teach you some English, you’ll basically have to learn the language on your own.

You’ll pick some up by watching the local news on TV. Mom will pop VHS tapes into the VCR and watch movies like Free Willy and Rookie of the Year (that’s a baseball movie … you’ll like that one). They’ll have subtitles so that you can see the words in Spanish, hear them in English and match them with what’s happening on the screen. You’ll get to where you can repeat the lines — in English — word for word.

I bet I could still do it today.

But even when you get a better understanding of the English language and school gets a little easier for you, there’s one place where you’ll be more comfortable than anywhere else in the world. More comfortable than your Cuban neighborhood. More comfortable than you were even back in Cuba.

The baseball field.

That stickball bat in your hands — that broomstick that you used to hit beans and bottle caps with in the streets in Havana — is only the beginning. When Dad gets a job coaching at a baseball academy, you’ll start playing and training there, and Spanish will become your second language. English, your third.

Baseball will become your first language.

Making it to the major leagues will feel like a life-or-death pursuit. Like there is no other option.

Yonder Alonso

When you’re old enough — around your sophomore year in high school — Dad will ask you to start working with him on the weekends cleaning offices and warehouses. You’ll think it’s a great idea. You’ll figure that Dad will hook you up with 20, maybe 25 bucks each weekend for working with him. I mean, people who work get paid, right? And you’ll be about 16 years old, ready to have some money of your own. Money to go to the movies with your friends. To buy your own stuff. Maybe even take a girl out on a date.

You know … like a normal teenager.

Nope.

You’ll quickly realize that Dad isn’t asking you to come help him.

He’s telling you.

“I can’t give you 20 bucks,” he’ll say. “We need that money to pay rent. So you need to come help me.”

Don’t even hesitate, Yonder — I know you won’t. By that time, you will have seen how hard Mom and Dad work. You’ll know yourself what hard work means because of how you’ve trained on the baseball field. And more than anything, you’ll know that every single dollar goes a long way for your family.

Mom and Dad are very proud. When you land in Miami, the people at the immigration office are going to give Mom and Dad a book of stamps. They’re called food stamps. It’s part of a government-assistance program for families who have little or no income. You can use the stamps at the grocery store, just like money.

But it will remind Mom and Dad of Cuba — of la libreta. It will remind them of what they left, and why they left. So they’ll never use those stamps, even though they’re like free money.

Mom and Dad’s plan is not for you to spend the rest of your life scrubbing toilets or cleaning warehouses.

They’ll want to earn everything they get.

So you’ll help. You’ll give up your weekends in high school with your friends. You’ll give up your teenage years to dedicate your time not only to baseball, but also to your family. You’ll get on your knees and scrub any toilet that needs to be scrubbed, if that’s what it takes.

But Mom and Dad’s plan is not for you to spend the rest of your life scrubbing toilets or cleaning warehouses, Yonder. I promise you, it’s not.

The plan is for you to play baseball.

To be a professional, like Dad was.

In America, a professional baseball player has the opportunity to make enough money to take care of his entire family for the rest of their lives. That will be your family’s goal for you. That will be your goal for yourself.

I’m not gonna lie … making it to the major leagues will feel like a life-or-death pursuit. Like there is no other option.

But you’ll never feel pressure.

It’ll just be … life.

It’ll be what you have to do for your family.

Which brings me to 2005. June. The MLB draft. You will have just graduated high school, and you’ll have multiple scholarship offers  — and one dream offer, really, from the University of Miami — to play baseball and to go to college for free.

But in the 16th round, a professional baseball team called the Minnesota Twins will draft you. You’ll have the option to sign a professional contract. To get paid to play baseball.

And Mom and Dad will tell you not to do it.

[Dad] basically retired from baseball and gave up his dream to provide a better life for you and Yainee — so that you could have a chance to live your dreams.

Yonder Alonso

You know Dad played pro baseball in Cuba. But what you don’t know is that he had a chance to play in the minor leagues in the U.S.

When he was playing for the Industriales in Cuba, he was very good, and he knew a few guys who told him that if he went to the U.S., they could get him a tryout with a pro team. They had connections. But for Dad, that would mean either leaving you, Mom and Yainee behind in Cuba — which was out of the question — or dragging you all to a random American city where he would get paid close to nothing to play baseball. Where they didn’t speak Spanish. Where he would have to spend as much time on the road and in hotels as he would at home and leave his family.

He thought that would be selfish. And so he decided that his life was not going to be about himself or about baseball. It was going to be about his family. So he basically retired from baseball and gave up his dream to provide a better life for you and Yainee — so that you could have a chance to live your dreams.

Your dream is to play Major League Baseball. But Mom and Dad know that making it to the major leagues from the 16th round is a long shot. And if baseball doesn’t work out, they don’t want your life after baseball to look like Dad’s — a life led struggling every day to provide for your family. They want you to have other options besides baseball.

So they’ll tell you not to sign the pro contract and to instead accept the scholarship to Miami.

Even if it means they’ll have to clean offices and warehouses for another three or four years.

When you get to Miami, you’re going to be more motivated than you will have ever been in your life. First, because of the competition. You’ll play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which will be second to none in college baseball. The talent level will be so high that it will almost feel like pro baseball.

But playing college baseball and going to school for free won’t help Mom and Dad pay the bills at home. You’ll still be helping them clean offices and warehouses. There will be afternoons where it’ll be 100 degrees outside and you’ll be in a warehouse with no air conditioning with Mom and Dad, emptying trash, cleaning toilets and killing the roaches and ants that are drawn to the sugary Cuban coffee spills on the desktops and floors. And by that time, Yainee will be right there with you. The little girl sitting next to you in the white dress will be rolling her sleeves up to clean garbage cans and cubicles.

You’ll see her doing that and think, Enough is enough.

This isn’t for us anymore.

We deserve better.

SHE deserves better.

So you’ll tap into some of Dad’s hustling skills.

Dad is a great man. He’s honest, trustworthy and hard-working.

But he has no problem breaking the rules in order to take care of his family. You learned that when you were helping him smuggle fruits and vegetables back in Cuba.

So you’ll think of a way that you can help provide for your family — by teaching kids to do the thing you know how to do best.

Hit.

So on top of going to school, and playing baseball, and cleaning offices and warehouses with your family, you’ll take a few 11- and 12-year old kids into the batting cages at Miami and give hitting lessons on the side.

After some home games, when everybody leaves the stadium, you’ll round up the couple of kids that you’re giving hitting lessons to and you’ll sneak them into the batting cages at the Hurricanes’ facility. If you can get three kids at $20 an hour, that’s $60 in your family’s pockets. Food in their mouths. Maybe a couple of more days of a roof over their heads.

Then there will be days when you’ll have an away game out of the state — in Virginia, or North Carolina or somewhere — and when the team plane lands back in Miami, usually around midnight, Dad will be there waiting for you because he’ll have a warehouse that needs to be cleaned overnight. You’ll go with him, and when he walks into the warehouse and reaches for the light switch, you’ll pray that when the lights come on it won’t be that bad. That it’ll be one of the rare easy cleanup jobs that won’t take you all night.

Most of the time, it will take you all night. But you and Dad will get the job done, and then you’ll go home, shower, and still be on time for your 8 a.m. class.

If that sounds like a lot for you to take on, just watch Dad, Yonder. You’ll learn the hustle. No matter what happens, you’ll find a way.

Just watch Dad, Yonder. You’ll learn the hustle.

Just like Mom and Dad will.

In 2008, after your junior season at Miami, you’ll enter the MLB draft. You, your family and a large group of your friends will be at an American restaurant called T.G.I. Friday’s. This time, you’re likely to be drafted in the first round, not the 16th.

You’ll get really excited when the sixth pick in the first round comes up. It belongs to the Florida Marlins, who are based in Miami.

They won’t pick you, though.

A team called the Reds from a place called Cincinnati will have the seventh pick. You’ll turn to Yainee, who will be sitting next to you, and say, “I think the Reds are going to take me. I really do.

And then you’ll see your name come up on the TV screen.

You’ll start crying — crying the way you are right now on that plane. But this time, you won’t be crying out of fear or uncertainty.

You’ll be crying because you did it, Yonder.

You made it.

This time, you’ll sign the contract to become a professional baseball player, and it will pay you $4.55 million dollars over four years. More money than you and your parents ever dreamed of. And you’ll finally be able to breathe easy. You’ll feel like you’ve been free-falling for 12 years — ever since Dad woke you up in the middle of the night and said, “We’re going on a trip.” And when you lift your pen up from that paper and it’s finally official, it will be like a parachute opening. Everything will finally be O.K., and Mom, Dad and Yainee will never have to clean another toilet or warehouse for as long as they live.

You remember when you were younger and you used to go watch Dad play baseball? You used to walk there from Uncle Nenito’s house, and it would be late in the evening, so it would be dark outside. There were no streetlights. As you got closer to the stadium, all you could see were the lights shining down through the trees on the baseball field.

The stadium was like a cathedral. A mecca. A holy place.

And you thought, Whoa. This is what I want. This is where I want to be.

Well, you’ll get there, Yonder.

After the Reds draft you, you’ll spend a couple of years in the minor leagues, and you’ll travel the U.S. playing baseball for different teams. Florida. Hawaii. Carolina. Arizona. Kentucky. You’ll play all over.

But in September 2010, you’ll get a call from the Reds, and they’ll tell you that they want you to come up to the major leagues for the rest of the season. You’ll get on a plane and head to Cincinnati, and Mom, Dad and Yainee will fly in from Miami to meet you.

When you arrive at Great American Ball Park, they’ll be there waiting for you. You’ll come out of the clubhouse, and they’ll be standing right by the dugout.

I want you to look around again at your family on that plane. Now, I want you to picture this: You’re 23 years old and wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform, and you come out of the dugout to see Mom, Dad and Yainee in the crowd. They’re dressed nice. They look healthy. They look happy. You walk over, and Dad and Yainee are standing kind of above you, and you’re looking up at them. You think about all the warehouses you’ve cleaned together. The cold McDonald’s cheeseburgers with the nasty pickles. The microwaved eggs. The unused food stamps. The plane. Everything.

And now you’re here, as a family, living the American dream.

Dad will be looking down at you like, You did it, Yonder.

And you’ll be looking up at him like, You did it, Dad.

The look on Dad’s face will priceless — proud.

And you’ll think, Ah … that poor guy.

He will have been through so much, Yonder. Grinding for years and years — basically his whole life — to try and make sure you and Yainee have the opportunity to live a better life.

And you’ve made it.

I won’t even tell you what you’ll feel in that moment. I’ll leave that for you to experience for yourself.

But what I will tell you is that at that moment, you still won’t fully understand everything Dad sacrificed for you and your family. But today, as I write this, I can say that I do understand, because I have a family of my own — my beautiful wife, Amber, and our one-year-old son, Troy. And when I look at them, I understand every single sacrifice that Dad ever made … because I would make those same sacrifices for Amber and Troy if that’s what it took to give them a better life.

But thankfully, I don’t have to make those sacrifices.

Because Dad already made them.

Well, I guess by now the sunrise has already filled the plane, everybody has stopped crying and you can probably see the Straits of Florida out the window. You should be just about there by now. To Miami, ready for your new life — a tough life, but one that will most certainly pay off, if you just work hard and do the right things.

But before I sign off, I have one last thing….

Did you know that Dad loves cookies?

Yeah, cookies.

You might not know that because they didn’t really have cookies in Cuba — at least not ones your family could afford. And even if you could have, there was only like one kind.

But yeah, he loves cookies. And when you guys land in Miami and Dad gets four jobs and Mom gets three and you rent a house in a Cuban neighborhood, there will be times when Dad will give you two dollars to buy lunch at school. You know, times when things are going well and there are a couple of extra dollars to go around — which won’t be often.

But a lot of times, you won’t spend that money on lunch. You’ll save it. And then after school you’ll go to the supermarket by the house and buy a loaf of Cuban bread. No, not the tiny rolls you were used to in Cuba. Real bread. Like, a giant log of hot, flaky, delicious bread. You’ll take it home, cut it in half and spread butter all over it, and one loaf will make a nice, filling dinner for you and Yainee.

Those will be good nights for you and your sister.

But I want you to do me a favor: Every now and then, when you skip lunch and you save that two dollars, skip the Cuban bread, too. Instead, when you go to the supermarket, head over to the cookie aisle and buy Dad a box of cookies — the best ones you can find. Save your money for weeks if you have to.

Because he deserves it — and so much more.

I know I already told you that everything is gonna work out and you’re gonna make it to the big leagues and take care of your family. But that won’t make the tough times that will come before that any easier. Life won’t always be fair. So every now and then, along the way, just make sure you let Mom and Dad know that you understand what they’re doing — and what they’ve done. Say thank you. Because you’re going to do some great things in your life … but none of them will be possible without Mom and Dad.

Life is going to be really hard. At times you are going to think it’s too hard. But just keep grinding. Hustle, like Dad does. Find a way. You are going to sacrifice a lot. You’re not gonna get to be a kid. But it will be a kid’s game that saves you and your family from poverty, and you’ll get to play it for a living. That will be your way out.

So get ready, niño. You can stop crying. The plane is about to descend, and when those wheels touch down in America and you get off that plane, that’s when your life will begin.

So go to work.

And never stop working.

Ever.

— Yonder